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Russia: Orthodox Monastic Tradition Sees A Revival

  • John Varoli

St. Petersburg, 18 November 1997(RFE/RL) -- Russia is slowly rediscovering its lost pre-1917 religious roots. Amid the chaos and uncertainty now a part of daily life, the once forgotten values of Russian Orthodoxy provide a bridge with the nation's past.

Russian Orthodoxy had a great influence before 1917. Orthodox monasteries played one of the most important role in the foundations of Russian culture and the Russian state.

A new, unprecedented exhibition at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg on "Russian Monasteries" features 68 Orthodox monasteries from across the European part of Russia.

The Russian Museum has a very fine collection of medieval Russian artifacts, says Yevgenia Petrova, the assistant director for Academic Work at the Russian Museum. In her own words, "we try to put it on display whenever possible because interest in this period of our history is increasing, and few know much about it."

The exhibition primarily displays monastery artifacts--- priests' vestments, crafted items for various rituals, and icons. But there is also a rich collection of paintings of monasteries and monks. The mystical, enchanting paintings of Mikhail Nesterov, who is probably Russia's greatest 19th century painter of religious themes, are some of the best on display.

Besides spiritual centers, Orthodox monasteries, like their counterparts in western Europe, were fonts of education, culture and political power. The monks spent their time painting icons, writing manuscripts, and maintaining the country's only libraries.

Monasteries were also among the country's largest landholders, and owned many serfs. Russia's princes, when vying for political power, tried to enlist the powerful monasteries in their cause. The exhibition, however, does not breach that aspect of the economic and political role that monasteries played.

High and sturdy monastery walls could withstand any siege, both physical and spiritual. Vasili Verashagin's huge painting, "The Siege of the St. Sergei-Trinity Monastery" easily impresses this historical fact onto the visitor. The subject of the painting was the Polish intervention in the 1610s, and subsequent siege of the St. Sergei-Trinity Monastery, which never fell to the enemy.

In the popular pre-revolutionary imagination monasteries called forth images of calm and protection amidst the chaotic, sinful earthly life. They were fortresses of the faith in a world that was considered to be in the clutches of the devil.

But the exhibition is no longer about history. Today, monasteries are becoming an increasing source of spirituality and influence in Russian life. Many people make pilgrimages to them, and some join the religious societies to dedicate themselves to God.

In the past decade, many monasteries have reopened after decades of Soviet persecution. In 1980 there were 18 Orthodox monasteries open in Russia. Today, after less than a decade of freedom, their number is about 400.